2012 National Book Award Finalist,
Young People's Literature
Bomb: The Race to Build―and Steal―the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon
Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press
Interview by Sofia Quintero
Sofia Quintero: Of all the stories you could’ve told, why this story at this time? What compelled you to pursue this idea?
Steve Sheinkin: My work is totally story driven―sure you end up learning something, but hopefully you don't realize it until it's too late. It was the story of the teenage physics prodigy Ted Hall that hooked me. He graduated Harvard at 18, and was swept directly into Los Alamos and within a few months knew almost as much as anyone on earth about how to build atomic bombs. And, while still just 18, he came up with the idea of sharing these secrets with the Soviets! So I started with Hall, and from there the book expanded into a global thriller about the race to make the bomb, with Hall as just one of the many main characters.
SQ: Bomb very much reads like fiction. Since you seem intent on doing penance for your previous life as a textbook writer, did you ever consider crafting the story as a novel? How did you cultivate your ability to write nonfiction that emphasizes showing after writing textbooks which, more often than not, usually resort to telling?
SS: It’s true, I’m really trying to make amends for all those textbooks, and I feel like the only way to do that is to prove that history is actually cool. So writing fiction would be cheating! My strategy is to find great stories, and to tell them in a simple, direct, and entertaining way. Before my textbook career, I worked on movies for a few years. Turns out I wasn’t born to be a filmmaker, but I still structure my books like screenplays, with fast-paced scenes, one leading into the next. The abundance of amazing action and compelling characters in the atomic bomb story gave me more than enough to work with.
SQ: In recent years, there has been extensive debate over the recent popularity of "dark narratives" and heavy themes in young adult literature, from dystopian fantasy to contemporary stories that deal with serious issues from substance abuse to sex trafficking. Your two books so far, The Notorious Benedict Arnold and now Bomb, are both historical perspectives that speak to several pressing contemporary issues, especially during this election year, one being national security. Why do you think readers are so drawn to the topics you write about, and what do you hope they will gain from reading your books?
SS: I’m drawn to stories and characters that show the complexities and contradictions in American history, the clash of beautiful ideals and messy reality. Benedict Arnold is about a hero who’s also a villain. Bomb is about scientists who set out to save the world, and end up creating a weapon capable of destroying all of us. I hope my books raise questions and spark discussions about these kinds of issues. Kids today have plenty to worry about, but nuclear war isn’t high on the list in these post-Cold War days. That’s fine, but there are still tens of thousands of atomic weapons scattered around the world, and there may be more on the way. So I hope Bomb gives young readers some background about how these weapons came to be, and how dangerous they are. I hope it makes them want to find out more about the past, and think about how historical events will impact their own lives.
SQ: Which authors did you read as a teen, and whose work in the genre do you enjoy reading now? Why? What would you like to see more of in young adult literature?
SS: The books that really blew me away in my early teens were historical novels like Mutiny on the Bounty and The Great Train Robbery, and in my later, more cynical teen years, books with what to me were historical settings, like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22. I’ve always been drawn to stories that felt real, whether told in novels or nonfiction, and just can’t get into dystopia or vampires. I’d say my all-time favorite YA novel is The Chocolate War. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d like to see more books like that—people should read whatever they want. These days I’m really into incredible outdoor adventure/survival stories—In the Heart of the Sea, Lost in Shangri-La, Skeletons on the Zahara, to name a few favorites.
SQ: Many young people who are avid readers tend to be aspiring writers, and they often ask, "How did you write your book?" Describe your writing process. What is the most important piece of advice you would give to a young aspiring writer?
SS: My process involves a lot more research and organization that actual writing. Basically, I find out everything I can on a subject, take tons of notes, boil the material down to key elements and scenes, and put everything onto index cards. Then I arrange and rearrange the cards, like puzzle pieces, until I have a story that flows. Then I write the actual sentences—that’s the part of the process I dread the most. Then I edit and polish, which seems relatively easy after the writing is done. I remember reading an interview with John Irving where he said something like, “If anyone ever saw one of my first drafts, I’d be instantly discredited as a writer.” I feel exactly the same. I need the whole process to produce something decent. So my advice… don’t rush it, and don’t lose confidence if it doesn’t sound right at first. Just keep practicing.
SQ: Finish this sentence. "Adults also should read young adult literature because..."
SS: …a lot of it is really good—story-driven, direct, and not pretentious.”
Sofía Quintero is the author of several novels and short stories that cross genres. Born into a working-class Puerto Rican-Dominican family in the Bronx, the self-proclaimed “Ivy League homegirl” earned a BA in history-sociology from Columbia University in 1990 and her MPA from the university's School of International and Public Affairs in 1992. After years of working on a range of policy issues from multicultural education to HIV/AIDS, she decided to pursue career that married arts and activism. Under the pen name Black Artemis, she wrote the hip hop novels Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’, and Burn. Sofía is also the author of the novel Divas Don’t Yield and contributed novellas to the “chica lit” anthologies Friday Night Chicas and Names I Call My Sister. As an activist, she co-founded Chica Luna Productions (chicaluna.com), a nonprofit organization that seeks to identify, develop and support women of color who wish to create socially conscious entertainment. She is also a founding creative partner of Sister Outsider Entertainment, a multimedia production company that produces quality entertainment for urban audiences. Quintero’s first young adult novel, Efrain’s Secret, was published by Knopf in 2010. To learn more about Sofia and her work, visit blackartemis.com, sisteroutsider.biz or myspace.com/sofiaquintero.